“I’ve never listened to my body before,” Shannon Martinez tells Broadsheet. “I push, push, push. I just keep going.”

The chef and restaurateur is a pioneer in the Aussie hospo world, putting vegan dishes in star place. In 2014 she opened Smith & Daughters in Fitzroy, a friendly neighbourhood restaurant making a fine case to ditch the meat.

“I started cooking vegan in 2006. I think of some of the stuff I used to do and it’s just cringe-worthy,” Martinez laughs. “But it was groundbreaking at the time.” A humble parma placed her on the map: a meat-free rendition she cooked up at the East Brunswick Club. “It was a live music venue, a lot of punk kids – and I’d never heard of vegan food before. I just thought … ‘Doesn’t everyone want to eat a parma?’”

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What followed was loyal fans, vocal critics, a clutch of books, Smith & Deli (a casual sibling) and the relocation of Smith & Daughters – while Martinez was undergoing chemotherapy – to Collingwood, where the flagship now dominates a block alongside the deli. She pushes.

And yet, slowing down was required. The chef ended up back in hospital last December. “I was so pissed off the second time I got diagnosed [with breast cancer], I didn’t have anything good to say. I just wanted it to be done,” she says. Despite the hurdles, the first month of Martinez’s year has held a lot. Book number four is in production, a bumper new concept is set to hit Marvel Stadium, events are being planned, and two popular eateries have been run. “Imagine, if I wasn’t sick, how much stuff I could get done.”

The pace is dizzying for anyone. So where does she find a moment of calm? “At home with my dog, Cyrus, a Peruvian hairless. The only hair he’s got is this gold mohawk.”

Only weeks after her latest health scare, Martinez’s up-and-at-em ethos is clear. It’s easy to imagine her tinkering away at something till it sticks. Mock meat became her central experiment, and the Smith venues the result. “I get bored extremely quickly. [With vegan meat], you have to learn everything yourself. So even though I came from a cooking background, this was all so new and I loved that.”

In a three-week mock-meat-making streak last year, Martinez covered her house in starch – the result of wheat dough passing through a gluten washer and leaving behind seitan, the protein used as the base for her clever imitations. “I was just immersed in it. By the end, we had a ‘steak’ night at Smith & Daughters and incredible cold cuts and charcuterie at the deli.”

High input, maximum reward. It’s the same MO with Friends of Daughters, the dinner series that invites chef-friends into Martinez’s kitchen. Attica’s Ben Shewry kicked it off – tickets sold out in seven minutes – and Chae’s Jung Eun Chae came next.

The Collingwood dining room was a scene of cross-pollinating deliciousness, but there was more than one motive at play. Martinez wants her diners to trust new chefs. And she wants to introduce her chef-friends “to a different potential dining audience. Hopefully it will encourage them to [cook a bit more vegan]. I’m slowly, slowly, passive-aggressively creeping into everyone’s psyche – working both sides, all for the greater cause.”

And what is the cause of a plant-based food pioneer who famously eats meat? Just a simple reduction in consumption, she says. The “fanatical” vegan naysayers suggesting she doesn’t walk the walk are dismissed. “It’s such a stupid, uneducated, meathead comment. The answer is simple: it’s not the taste [vegans] don’t like, it’s the cruelty to animals, it’s the effect on the environment. Everyone loves the taste of bacon! No one’s going to eat a piece of epic Comté and be like ‘Ugh, disgusting!’”

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.

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